About Writing: How Do You Choose Your Character Names?

Choosing a name for your character shouldn’t be such a big deal, but it really is, isn’t it? You want it to be just right, to speak to something deeper, to suggest something about them as a person, or to conjure up allusions to other things that speak to the audience on a guttural level. Or is that just me?

Sometimes the right name pops into your head almost immediately, and sometimes you have to dig around for days to come up with something that feels right. Sometimes you search in vain and end up just settling for one.

How do you choose your character names?
How do you choose your character names?

When I started writing my novel about an everyday man who decides to indulge his fantasies, I quickly settled on the name Keith. It was deliberately mundane, and sat well as the title, Keith: A Novel.

Then, when I was looking for a name for the antagonist of In The Can, I wanted to allude to a moment in history, linking her to the great early days of United Artists. I opted to give her the surname Spenser, though not a direct reference to Charlie Chaplin, enough of a clue to satisfy my needs.

Sometimes, for a script, to help me imagine the character’s voice, I will use a placeholder name that references an actor or a character in an existing show. So, if I want someone with a quick wit and scathing sarcasm, I might temporarily use Gregory, just to keep House at the back of my mind (not forgetting that House is himself a synonymous reference to Holmes).

Then there are the times when it’s a real struggle. When I first devised my latest comedy drama spec script, I got stuck on a surname for my main character, and couldn’t find a first name to fit. After lots of back and forth, I settled on a first name that I liked, mostly because it spoke to an important aspect of her character. But it didn’t sit right with the surname, so I had to start again with that. What I finally came up with also spoke to her character, and together they felt right.

So, how do you choose your character names?

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4 thoughts on “About Writing: How Do You Choose Your Character Names?

  • May 26, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    Came across you on the Kindle Boards. There is a site that lets you search for names by the decades going back a hundred years or so. What was popular or common at the time. Also other ways to search.

    The problem I encounter is when I decide to change a character’s name after starting. Inevitably, I’ll miss one spot. The other thing is having pet names and using them in different books. Maybe a version of typecasting? A year ago I had picked Adele as a main character name until I found out she was a well known singer (obviously, I’m out of that loop). Had to go back and change.

  • May 26, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    I go through periods where I favour some names over others. It’s something you need to keep on top of I think.

  • May 29, 2013 at 8:42 am

    I have three methods (and, by the way, thanks for giving me a great idea for a future blog topic!):

    1. Websites that have random name generators. I know it’s ‘cheating’ a bit, but if it’s a small character, I don’t want to burn too many cycles putting a lot of thought into it.

    2. Hearing a combination of words that aren’t a name, but could *BE* a name, in ordinary conversation, on TV, whatever. I got this idea after hearing about how Lee Child came up with his pen name (it’s funny – google it). So, I’ll keep an ear tuned out for something good. For example, I walked into the room while the wife was watching a soap the other day, and some woman on the television was lamenting about, “… the type of war Victor wages…,” and I thought, “Hey! Victor Wages sounds like a clever name for a character.” So, I wrote it down.

    3. I’ll ask the wife. She’s good at that sort of thing. I’ll come up with plot lines and story structures and practically write entire chapters referring to characters as “BadGuy4” until I can create a proper name. I give her the background and setting, and she usually comes up with something I can work with.

  • May 29, 2013 at 10:15 am

    Excellent stuff, thanks.

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